Muslims in the West: A Positive Asset

For Western political leaders and commentators to keep politically repeating that the ‘war on terrorism’ is not a war on Muslims is of great importance. For the rhetoric associated with Samuel Huntington’s ‘clash of civilization’ is thick in the air; just as it was politically being brought under control – at least as an official posture – the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, reasserted the view that the underlying problem for the West is not terrorism or even Islamic fundamentalism but Islam, i.e. a rival and inferior civilization.

This pointing the finger at Muslims clearly will not go away and its denials are not believed by many Muslims throughout the world. Not just because all the countries, organisations and individuals that are being targeted are all Muslims (e.g., no one mentions the Tamil Tiger separatists in Sri Lanka, even though they pioneered the use of ‘suicide bombers’, not to mention the various groups that the CIA supports, as it used to support the Taliban). But also because Islam is so clearly evoked by many terrorist and jihadi organisations – bin Laden is perhaps the greatest advocate of the clash of civilisation thesis. Yet, we need to question whether the adjectives ‘Islamic’ or ‘Arab’ are appropriate in the common expressions ‘Islamic/Arab terrorists’. When a fifth of contemporary humanity accepts the terms ‘Islamic’ and ‘Muslim’ as self-descriptions, to use the terms to characterise a limited number of lethal organisations is highly dangerous. Anything that frames the current crisis as war between rival portions of humanity is an act of gross escalation. We have to be careful to not cast our friends nor enemies in ethnic, religious or racial terms.

The ‘clash of civilizations’ idea poses a real danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy in this moment when we are all trying to make sense of what is happening in the world, who is to blame and how can justice and peace be furthered. The one thing we are surely on sound intellectual, as well as practical, grounds to challenge is the idea of separateness. The idea of Islam as separate from a Judeo-Christian West is as false as it is influential. Islam, with its faith in the revelations of Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, belongs to the same tradition as Christianity and Judaism. It is, in its monotheism, legalism and communitarianism, not to mention specific rules of life, such as dietary prohibitions, particularly close to Judaism. In the Crusades of Christendom and at other times, Jews were slaughtered by Christians and their secular descendents and protected by Muslims. The Jews remember Muslim Spain as a ‘Golden Age’. Islam, indeed, then was a civilization, a ‘superpower’ and a genuine geopolitical rival to the West. Yet even in that period Islam and Christendom were not discrete nor mere competitors. They borrowed and learned from each other, whether it was in relation to scholarship, philosophy and scientific enquiry, or medicine, architecture and technology. Indeed, the classical learning from Athens and Rome, which was lost to Christendom, was preserved by the Arabs and came to western Europe – like the institution of the university – from Muslims. That Europe came to define its civilization as a renaissance of Greece and Rome and excised the Arab contribution to its foundations and well-being is an example of racist myth-making that has much relevance to today.

If in the Middle Ages, the civilizational current was mainly one way – from Muslims to Christians – in later periods the debt has been paid back. Yet this later epoch of West-Islam relations has been marked not by the geopolitics of civilizational superpowers but by a triumphant West. In terms of power, Muslim civilization collapsed under Western dominance and colonialism and it is a moot point whether it has since been revived or suitably adjusted itself to Western modernity. Anyway, the idea of a ‘clash of civilizations’ obscures the real power relations that exist between the West and Muslim societies. Whatever is happening in the latter today is in a context of domination and powerlessness – a context in which Muslim populations suffer depredations, occupation, ethnic cleansing and massacres with little action by the civilized world or the international community. Indeed, the latter, especially American power and military hardware, is often the source of the destruction and terror. As with Iraq, it is no small irony that the US and its allies are waging a war against a Taliban in Afghanistan whose weapons the US itself supplied only a decade before.

Meanwhile, the creation of Israel, as an atonement for the Holocaust and more generally for the historical persecution of the Jews by Europeans, along with ongoing Israeli military expansion, have resulted in a continuing and deepening injustice against Palestinians and others. It is a conflict that has many of the motifs of late twentieth and early twenty-first century barbarities: ethnic cleansing, state terrorism against civilian populations, guerrilla action against civilians, increasingly in the form of suicide bombing. All this, and yet no intervention by any international alliance for justice, because of, it is widely and rightly perceived by everyone but Americans themselves, the power of the pro-Israeli lobby. The latter cannot be challenged in the US for domestic electoral reasons regardless of the harm it does to American interests and a balanced policy in the Middle East. Now that the terror has come home, it must be time to review this disastrous policy and seek justice.

My point is not that the attack on Manhattan and the Pentagon is directly linked to Palestine (at the moment, nobody knows), let alone that the violence in one in any way justifies the other. The point is that our shock and outrage at the murder of the innocents in America on 11 September must not obscure a wider analysis and a wider sense of humanity. The murder and terror of civilians as policy does not begin with the acts of 11 September. If we attend to the news carefully, we will be reminded that they occur regularly in a number of places in the world, sometimes by, or at least supported by, western states. The perception of these victim populations often is that they matter less than when westerners are victims. It is this deep sense that the West is perceived by many to exercise double standards and that this is a source of grievance, hate and terrorism which is perhaps the most important lesson of 11 September, not the division of the world into rival civilizations, civilized and uncivilized, good and evil. This perception has to be addressed seriously if there is to be dialogue across countries, faiths and cultures, and foreign and security policies need to be reviewed in the light of the understanding that is achieved. Our security in the West, no less than that of any other part of the world, depends upon (adapting a phrase from the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair) being tough on terrorism and tough on the causes of terrorism.

Nor are the issues just to do with foreign policies. Just as there were attacks on Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor, so now, presaged by the attacks after the bombing of the Federal Murrah Building in Oklahoma City in 1996, when the US media, politicians and experts assumed that Muslims were responsible for that attack, there are reports of racist attacks, harassment and vandalism. Over the weekend of 15-16 September, a Muslim storekeeper in Dallas and a Sikh (no doubt presumed to be a Muslim on account of his brown skin, turban and beard) storekeeper in Arizona City were shot dead in what the police believe were racist murders. Since then, attacks and harassment against Muslims, including other murders, have been reported in all parts of the US and throughout Europe. This is a further reason why we must be careful with the ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis: it furthers racist stereotyping and all attendant evils within what are attempting to be multicultural societies. Through recent and not so recent migrations and population movements, many societies, especially in the West, are multiethnic or contain settled diasporas. Groups such as Muslims in the West – encompassing many racialised ethnicities – are clearly vulnerable to scapegoating and ‘revenge’ attacks. Muslims across the West (and elsewhere) have condemned the attacks of 11 September and have denounced them as unIslamic but most Muslims oppose the bombing of Afghanistan. They believe that it is creating further unnecessary deaths, preventing food from being delivered to millions on the brink of starvation, will most likely fail to capture or kill bin Laden but will further enrage radical Islamists and those prepared to be ‘martyrs’ in further attacks on the West. Yet many moderate Muslims, especially in the US, are intimidated from protesting against the military action being carried out or supported by their governments. In effect, therefore, by harassment, by accusations of being a fifth column, by the use of ‘Middle-Easterner’ racial profiling by the aviation industry and security services and by having to silence their opposition to a war that could create a humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan and a more general Islam-West vicious circle of global violence – for all these reasons, Muslims in the West are second class citizens. Their presence in the West, in the present atmosphere, may come to be seen, even by themselves, as alien. But actually it can be an asset.

For, if indeed it is true that what we need today is greater understanding of the dispossessed and the powerless, especially when they seem culturally alien and mobilize around their group identities, then their diasporas in the West can also be a critical source of dialogue, understanding and bridge-building. To mention only one example, just as Irish-Americans have recently sensitized American foreign policy-makers to the concerns of Irish Republicans in Northern Ireland, terrorists and otherwise, and shifted US policy, with dramatic and beneficial effects in the mother country, so groups such as Muslims in the West can be part of transcultural dialogues, domestic and global, that might make our societies live up to their promise of diversity and democracy. Such communities can thus facilitate communication and understanding in these fraught and potentially destabilizing times.

Such dialogue – at a personal, local, national, transnational and international level – seems a tall order. But there are grounds for hope. One is that while it is certainly true that the sense of being besieged and insecure that contemporary Islam and Muslim societies feel is not conducive to dialogue, this can change. The ‘closed-mindedness’ of Islam has had much to do with colonialism and Western dominance. When Muslims do not feel threatened and powerless, they have been outward-looking and expansive, generous and universal; it is powerlessness that has made them closed-minded and repressive (especially in relation to women), suspicious of new ideas and influences. Hence, dialogue is possible but it must be under conditions of mutual respect and in a world order which addresses inequalities of wealth and power and allows Muslims the political freedom to develop their own societies rather than imitate the West or suffer dictatorships that further Western interests (much of which hinge on the failure to develop alternatives to dependency on cheap oil).

As a Briton who was a social science student in the early 1970s, my intellectual and political formation took place at a time when many intellectuals and students were attracted to and energised by an ideology committed to the overthrow of capitalism. For the most part this was confined to hero-worship of far-away terrorists (those ubiquitous posters of Che Guevara, for example), dangerous utopianism and violent slogans – as it is amongst many Muslim students and intellectuals today – but also physical confrontations in the street, seizures of buildings (leading to a temporary breakdown of government in Paris in 1968) and domestic terrorism in parts of Europe by the Bader-Meinhof gang and the Red Brigade (paralleled by the Black Panthers and others in the US). Some of my generation still look back fondly at that era, but I think most of us are relieved that the militant Marxism passed away. This gives me some hope that the same can happen with militant Islamism.

Bridge-building, however, does not simply mean asking moderate Muslims to join and support the new project against terrorism. Muslims must be at the forefront of asking critical questions such as why there are so few non-repressive governments in Muslim societies, and help to create constructive responses. But we must also ask where are the moderate western governments when moderate Muslims call for international protection and justice in Palestine, Bosnia, Chechnya and Kashmir or for the easing of sanctions against Iraq after it became apparent that it was the weak and the poor who were bearing the brunt of their effects? US policy in relation to the Muslim world and many other parts of the world has been far from moderate. Now that a terrible tragedy has happened to the US, the US is asking moderate Muslims to get on side. The fundamental question, however, is whether there is a recognition by the US and its allies of a need to radically review and change its attitude to Muslims.

An earlier version of this article appeared in The Observer (London) newspaper website on 30 September.